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By Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The study of Kabbala today is a tradition dating back to the most ancient of Jewish sages

The word "Kabbala" stems from the Hebrew root "kabal", meaning "to receive". The term implies that it is a certain kind of wisdom that is received.

The Mishna says that "Moses received [kibel] Torah on Sinai and [subsequently] transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua transmitted it to the Elders. The Elders transmitted it to the Prophets. The Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly."

Moses was the master of all prophets. He understood the Torah completely. In this sense his prophetic vision was on the level of an open vessel that could always receive more. Perhaps the secret of Moses receiving was, the more he transmitted, the more he was able to receive. The Mishna thus says, "Moses 'kibel' Torah" because he was the paradigm of complete and total kabbala - receptivity to the prophetic experience.

The idea of Kabbala, then, is to become completely infused with Torah and to connect with it on every possible level. Without Kabbala, a person could understand Torah on a number of levels. The only way to grasp every single nuance of Torah, however, is through the prophetic wisdom that is contained in Kabbala.

"Moses transmitted to Joshua and Joshua transmitted to the Elders" (Mishna Avot 1:1)

We can now understand what Moses "transmitted to Joshua and Joshua transmitted to the Elders, etc." According to the Torah, G-d told Moses to place his spirit upon Joshua (Num.27:20). In other words, Moses was to invest Joshua with his own spirit of prophecy. According to an ancient Midrash, this included the necessary methods and disciplines for acquiring prophecy. Moses thus transmitted the keys for entering the prophetic state to Joshua. These keys constituted the Kabbala tradition.

Throughout the period of the Prophets, the Kabbala was guarded by the master prophets and transmitted to select disciples. During this time, the Sanctuary, and later the First Temple, served as the focal point for all prophetic experience. When the Temple was about to be destroyed the prophet Ezekiel was shown a vision which was to signal the end of a thousand year period of prophecy. This vision is known as Maaseh Merkava, the Discipline (or Workings) of the Chariot. While referring specifically to the opening chapter of the book of Ezekiel, the term Maaseh Merkava is also a general appellation for the entire Kabbala tradition.